Brian Setzer Orchestra Arena Theatre December 15, 2012
Within the taxonomy of rock and roll, rockabilly (bless its hot rod heart) can get dismissed as a one-trick pony with a ducktail for a mane and flames painted on its haunches. At least it can by people who see only kitsch when they should be looking for skill.
Fronting Long Island trio the Stray Cats, Brian Setzer took rockabilly to the Top 10 and the cover of Rolling Stone about 20 years past the genre's original sell-by date. Some time later, he made the peanut-butter-and-chocolate connection between rockabilly and big-band swing and was charting Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive an' Wail" on the Modern Rock Top 20 as late as 1998.
Then he decided to play Santa Claus -- and not just any right jolly old elf, but a "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus."
Saturday night, Setzer brought his deluxe Orchestra to the Arena Theatre for his ninth annual "Christmas Rocks" tour, which made for quite the procession of tour buses in the alley opposite the Arena's parking garage. Populating those buses were 13 horn players, who brought a few woodwinds for good measure (and the "Nutcracker Suite" encore); two buxom female backup vocalists in velvety sheath-dresses; and an upright bassist and drummer, each of whom had his share of scene-stealing moments. And a partridge in a pear tree.
The bassist had a Santa hat perched on the neck of his instrument, only a slight distraction from the bright purple flames painted on the front. Not to be outdone, the drummer performed a lengthy solo on those bass strings during "Fishnet Stockings," one of several textbook rave-ups performed while the horns were taking a, hmmm... breather. (Rimshot!)
Those horns, meanwhile, sank their lips into some sumptuous charts, be it the Glenn Miller "Chattanooga Choo Choo" territory and Louis Jordan jump-blues on "Sleigh Ride" and "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus," or the brass-chorale harmonies of "Angels We Have Heard On High." Each soloist stood up for his feature as per big-band traditon, always a fun sight to see.
The rest of the time they were punctuating the action with some amusing hand gestures -- after his solo, one trombone player flipped his mute up in the air for the guy in the row behind him to catch -- that were almost as entertaining. Even if the effect was a little diminished if the stage was revolving in the opposite direction, that much brass in that small a space can't help but make a wonderful sound.
One thing not needed on the Arena's revolving stage was another guitarist; lucky, because it was getting a little crowded up there. Looking dapper in a black waistcoat and crepe-soled brothel creepers, Setzer played the hell out of one brightly colored hollowbody guitar after another, his fingers negotiating each arpeggio with a tone as sparkling as the instrument's finish.
Even if an arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov's classical warhorse "Flight of the Bumblebee" came off as a little corny and show-offy, Setzer's genial demeanor and hepcat persona must somehow deflect some attention from what a serious-badass guitarist he is. After the show, Jason the Photographer reminded me that Setzer had held his own alongside Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck in the Honeydrippers, and it made perfect sense.
Saturday's show was so chipper, in fact, that it scrubbed clean any ballads that might introduce even the slightest hint of holiday melancholy. Likewise missing, for that matter, were any carols that might breach a PG-13 rating, maybe "Santa Claus Is Back In Town" or "Merry Christmas Baby."
Even "Blue Christmas" was pretty toothsome, and not at all blue. The one note resembling regret the entire evening came when Setzer mentioned that he wished were somewhere for people to dance, which by the end a few happy-footed folks were doing in the aisles anyway.
But on the other hand, in a production that could have easily gone over the top with the boughs of holly, and did in fact feature walk-ons by Santa Claus and the Grinch, the Orchestra wound up way heavier on the rocking than the Christmas. Starting out as a trio for Chuck Berry's "Run, Rudolph, Run," before the horns joined them (in leopard-print coats!) by the second half of "Rock This Town," Setzer's home stretch managed to wipe any stray Yuletide thoughts from my mind, and focus all my attention onto the crackling energy onstage.
So Saturday turned out to be a grade-A rockabilly revue masquerading as a big-band holiday show. Talk about a Christmas miracle.
Personal Bias: Pro-Christmas. Pro-Grinch. Pro-rockabilly.
The Crowd: Scattered leopard-print Santa hats. A fishnet or two.
Overheard In the Crowd: The people behind us talking about seeing Ringo Starr's band at the Arena some 12-13 years ago.
Random Notebook Dump: Up close, Setzer looks surprisingly like Paul McCartney. "That hound-dog look," Jason said on the way home.
Dig That Crazy Santa Claus Sleigh Ride '49 Mercury Blues Cat on a Hot Tin Roof She's Sexy + 17 Stray Cat Strut/You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Crash Like Thunder Flight of the Bumblebee Angels We Have Heard On High Jump, Jive & Wail Run, Rudolph, Run Jingle Bell Rock Blue Christmas Fishnet Stockings Rock This Town
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Nutcracker Suite Jingle Bells